“People would literally come up to you if they saw you in the supermarket and tell you “I’ve got a story…”
First, a tale of adolescent silliness.
There were the three of us: Mike and John and me. All good students, all Catholic Irish academically minded. Mike was the philosopher, John the intellectual, I filled the role of resident gobshite. It was 1981, we had ruler-straight partings, noose-knotted ties and blazers with a Latin phrase beneath a crest of three stags.
Strenuis Ardua Cedunt.
Hard Work Prevails.
But no trio of angelic Charlies us. Oh no, sir. These were the post-punk years, after all. An age of rebellion, of disenchantment, of riot and rampage. So every Wednesday, we plotted and performed our own act of suburban subversion.
We placed fake announcements in the local paper.
The christening of Siamese twins, no flowers needed at the funeral of a pet baboon, Happy Rameses III Day to one and all.
We were inventive, we were hilarious.
We were easily caught.
This season of the surreal only last five weeks and it was hardly a month that made us: just another tale of bored teenagers finding distraction in their small town way. A spot of harmless fun in the summer of Toxteth and Brixton. To be honest, I’ve barely thought about it until this week, but the memory inevitably rose after talking with Declan McSweeney about the differences in regional reporting – not just between Ireland and England but between London and the rest of the UK, as well as between times past and times now.
Because what Declan’s comparisons and my own half-recovered remembrance emphasised, along with the aching need to maintain the tradition of the parish pump, was the simple joy of local. The pleasure you’d take in having your latest achievement snapped and summarised for all to see each Friday, the excitement at the prospect of being visited by an emissary of the Advertiser or the Herald or the Express. Even the self-righteous outrage discovering next-door-but-one pleaded guilty to a number of parking offences.
Local press doesn’t simply report a community, it defines it – through both its provincial nature and its accessibility. Declan talks of being approached in supermarket queues with stories. My happy band of smartarses got away with enough tomfoolery to be naughty but not so much we became offensive. We could do it because the paper was local. We were stopped because so were we.
The local journalist – whether read, heard or seen – has to be a special kind of writer, and it doesn’t matter whether they are native or neighbour. As long as they are willing to immerse themselves within the community, remain open to the approaches of strangers, both maintain a sense of joy in small differences and take pleasure in seasonal repetition, their influence can cross seas.
A case in point.
My Aunt Maureen in Manchester only ever plays local radio in the house – not from North West England, however, but from the West of Ireland.
Clare FM is her mainstay, a connection with the families and towns she left behind half a century ago. Whether through traffic reports, mentions of Tulla, or the sound of childhood accents, it keeps her grounded, lifts her sprits, makes her feel at home.
So the decision by RTE to cut its Long Wave service last month did more than simply save a portion of its budget – it also cut a cord with the Diaspora in this country. For all the compensatory talk of Virgin Media, Freesat and RTE Apps, there is a significant proportion of first generation Diaspora for whom this is an alien tongue. What was a simple pleasure has become a complex engagement, filled with gatekeepers, passwords, data protection protocols and signal failure.
Local media – or, perhaps more accurately, community media – should be an easy thing. Easy to access, easy to understand, easy to work for.
And really easy to approach with adolescent silliness.
The Plastic Podcast: Declan McSweeney
Declan on Fiona Pender and her mother